Baking to Breathe

The recipe for a sweet life.

By Alexandra Zohn

There are few things as comforting as a plate filled with warm cookies on a rainy afternoon. Their sweet scent wafting throughout the house is as inviting as a hug. It could be gray, wet and cold outside, however, indulging in a freshly baked treat seems to quiet the storm. The act of baking provides me with that same relief when the tempest is not rain and thunder, but rather life’s downs and troubled times.

It is healing to get into the kitchen and create little miracles. Ordinary-looking powders and liquids are mixed and placed in the oven. Whether I’m creating desserts for consumers of my online business or for loved ones at home, the oven door closes and voila— magic happens. Some minutes (or hours) pass and I’ve created something totally new that makes everyone around happy. Cookies and cake make everything seem better. It’s their essence, and creating them gives me the power of evoking joy with my hands, my time, and of course my oven.

Baked treats automatically give any event a celebratory status. Scientists say it’s due to a bunch of hormonal reactions caused by the ingestion of sugar, fats, chocolate and other indulgent ingredients. While I’m not arguing with that, I think there’s much more to the phenomenon. It’s the whole process of being able to transform nature— to build something new, edible, beautiful and delicious. The great thing about desserts goes beyond eating. We eat meals for sustenance, but consume dessert for luxury. In the old days, wealthy people used pastries to show off their status. Sugar and chocolate were highly coveted commodities.

Nowadays, things have gotten much cheaper and many people have access to dessert. Yet, sweets retain their festive meaning. Birthdays, anniversaries, holidays and small gatherings often have baked goods that highlight the celebration. Even during times of mourning, cakes and cookies are offered to lift people’s spirits.

Clients call my bakery asking us to send cookie tins for a shiva, when a family is mourning the loss of a loved one. They also request gift boxes to wish a happy new year or birthday to their friends. Tons of children have blown out candles on our cookie cakes, and people in love confess their feelings through truffle bouquets. Bestowing people with baked goods allows for wishing, sharing, thanking, remembering, apologizing, expressing concern, celebrating and healing. It is sweet!

Baking may also be what has turned me into a popular friend to have. What I never achieved in high school, I’ve attained in my mid 30s: I’m in high demand as a pastry chef. Everyone wants me around, with a box of sweetness in my hands. Could it be that I chose my profession due to a case of low self-esteem, longing for acceptance? Maybe. But it feels good now! It’s amazing how wonderful it is to have a bunch of 4 year olds encircling me while waiting to get their treats during a preschool pickup.

I don’t advocate overeating treats with no abandon. I deeply believe in mindful baking and eating, choosing wholesome ingredients and respecting nature. I’m a fan of little portions— just a few bites of intense pleasure and long moments of deep appreciation. This philosophy was brought to life when teaching my own children how to bake. When they are part of the whole process and realize the work involved, they enjoy each step and benefit from a greater sense of fulfillment. In baking and in life, often the best things come to those who wait.

Alexandra Zohn is head pastry chef at Three Tablespoons (www.threetablespoons.com), an e-bakery offering kosher, vegan and organic treats. She’s a mother of two and lives on the Upper East Side of New York City.